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Weekly Roundup: Thursday, May 25

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Weekly Roundup: Thursday, May 25

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Hey, there. NPR has created its first ever podcast for kids - and their grown-ups. It's called Wow In The World, and it explores ideas and discoveries about science, animals, space, technology and a lot more. Check it out on the NPR One app and wherever you listen to podcasts.

ANDREA: Hey, y'all. This is Andrea (ph) calling from Cal State LA in Los Angeles, smack dab in the middle of finals week. This podcast was recorded...

DETROW: Thursday, May 25, at 2:22 Eastern.

ANDREA: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. Keep up with all of NPR's political coverage at npr.org, in the NPR One app and on your local public radio station. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS podcast, here with an update on the president's overseas trip following a terror attack in the United Kingdom. We'll also talk about the Congressional Budget Office score of the House Republican health care bill that's already passed and the president's budget proposal which came out this week. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress for NPR.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: All right. Make sure you catch our Monday episode to hear from Tamara Keith, who's been traveling with the president this week, which means right at this moment, she is probably on an airplane to Sicily - good for her.

President Trump and Tam have been to several countries since we last talked to her, and world events have changed. There was that suicide bombing in Manchester, England, that killed 22 people. This is one of those world events, completely unpredictable, that presidents have to deal with in these orchestrated trips.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So this is the worst attack in the U.K. since the London subway bombings in 2005. And, you know, you had young children who were killed. Your - you had some parents who were killed.

DAVIS: And this is one of the things we heard in response to it, was that it was a particularly gruesome attack because it was essentially a child's concert. I don't want to say a children's concert because it was Ariana Grande, who's a pop star, but it was young kids. It was...

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

DAVIS: And it was young girls. And it was people out with their families, with their parents. And that added just an element of cruelty and sadness to it.

LIASSON: Yes. And the president responded to that attack. He called the terrorists evil losers, although he said I won't call them monsters because they'd probably like that. But this is something that has been, really, the focal point of his trip. That's what he was in the Middle East to do, he said, is to unite the Sunni Arab countries against Iran, who he says is a promoter of terrorism. Although, just to be clear, ISIS is a Sunni Muslim group, and Iran is a Shiite country, and they are not supporters of ISIS, quite the contrary.

DETROW: Right. But you're right, though. He had just given that big speech in Saudi Arabia urging leaders of Middle Eastern countries to drive them out. That's something he said over and over, calling on countries around the world to reject terrorism. Today he's meeting with NATO partners in Brussels. Is the Manchester attack changing the tone for these meetings?

LIASSON: I don't think so. I mean, they're - it's been discussed, and condolences have been given to Theresa May. But I don't think it's changed the tone of the meetings. The president always wanted to go to Brussels and get the NATO countries to say that terrorism was going to be a higher priority for them, something that he says they never started paying attention to until he told them to. And they've responded that, actually, they've been fighting, including in Afghanistan, for many, many years.

The most striking thing about the NATO meetings was Donald Trump went from the Middle East where he was received like a potentate to Europe where he's gotten a much more ambiguous, ambivalent welcome. The European leaders were concerned about him. They don't know if he's really committed to NATO, which is the common security project of the U.S. and Europe. And they were waiting for him to say some key things - that he still believed in Article 5; that's an attack on one is an attack on all. And while he didn't say he didn't believe in it - and he actually even acknowledged that Article 5 has only been invoked one time, at 9/11 for us...

DETROW: Which, again, was a response to terrorism, which he says...

LIASSON: Right.

DETROW: ...They never cared about...

LIASSON: Right.

DETROW: ...Until now.

LIASSON: Right.

DETROW: But, yeah.

LIASSON: Right. But he did not give a ringing endorsement to Article 5. Instead, he used his speech at this new NATO building in a very unusual way. He harangued - and I think that's a fair word to use - his NATO partners for not spending the 2 percent of their GDP that they are supposed to spend on defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they're supposed to be paying for their defense. This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.

LIASSON: Other American presidents have complained about this, have tried to get the NATO allies to commit to bringing their defense budgets up, which they say they will by 2024. But the president spent a big bulk of the speech haranguing them how it's not fair to U.S. taxpayers, which is really puzzling because they don't pay us the money, and it's not a protection racket. It's just that for the mutual defense, all these countries are expected to each spend 2 percent or more on defense.

DETROW: And that just goes into their budget. You're right. That is something that previous presidents have criticized. But the way that he's gone after and questioned NATO has led to Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense Mattis basically doing these these European tours early on in the administration saying no, no, no, no. We really care about NATO.

LIASSON: They practically go over there blinking in Morse code - don't worry. We will still defend you. We're not backing out of NATO. Even yesterday on the plane, Rex Tillerson briefed reporters and said, of course, he - we stand by Article 5.

DETROW: And yet, Trump harangues, as you put it.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, he even went beyond this. He - the word we're using his harangue - he harangued them about immigration.

DETROW: Sue, as Trump has been skeptical of NATO in a way that a candidate and a president hasn't really been before, there's been pretty constant bipartisan support for our typical European alliances in Congress, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, this is also one of those issues where Trump is Trump and the Republican Party is the Republican Party. I don't think he - his sort of tougher stance on NATO and that alliance and what it means with this partnership to the U.S. is in any way reflected in members of Congress. And this is one of those issues where Republicans, throughout the campaign, and even now as president, Republicans are really quick to distance themselves from the president's position - people like John McCain, people like Speaker Paul Ryan - and even people like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who feels very differently about foreign policy than the president does.

DETROW: Let me just ask the big-picture question, though - why does this particular alliance matter so much? Why should we care if a president is questioning whether or not NATO is obsolete?

LIASSON: First of all, he has backed off of that. He said, I used to think they were obsolete; now they're not obsolete anymore. But the Western alliance, NATO, is the most important defense alliance that the modern world has ever seen. And it's responsible for 70 years of peace and prosperity. And what it does is it draws a line through Europe and keeps Russia on the other side. You know, the reason why we have NATO is so Europe can be whole and free.

DETROW: So if - so if Russia...

LIASSON: And that's in the United States' national security interest.

DETROW: Right. But the basic premise is that Russia, if it attacked, say, Poland, it's not just fighting with Poland. By the language of the treaty, it's fighting with all the countries in NATO.

LIASSON: And what's so interesting about the speech the president gave today - if I were Vladimir Putin, I'd want to test the United States' commitment to Article 5 and take a little chunk out of Estonia or Latvia and see what happened Because if the United States decided - oh, we're not really willing to come to their aid, even though we are bound by a treaty to...

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Do so, that would be the end of NATO.

DETROW: So that's NATO. Trump goes from there to another summit of - you know, a lot of the people are the same cast of characters from one summit to another. Up next is the G7. Can someone explain what the G7 does compared to NATO?

DAVIS: The G7 is seven of the most advanced economies. They focus more on economic issues, whereas NATO is more focused on security issues.

DETROW: And that basically wraps up the trip, which, again, has gone from Saudi Arabia to Israel to Italy to the Vatican to Brussels to Sicily. I think that's all the stops. Is there another stop on the trip?

DAVIS: I think that's it.

KURTZLEBEN: Nope.

DETROW: OK.

KURTZLEBEN: Just Iowa.

DETROW: And then, of course (laughter), Iowa, yes, because one of the things we saw happen this week was we all got the alert, in our email inboxes, that President Trump is holding another campaign rally in Iowa. Where is that going to be?

KURTZLEBEN: Cedar Rapids.

DETROW: The Iowan in the room can answer that question.

KURTZLEBEN: I sure can, yeah. I mean, he seems to think that it's time for another campaign rally, I guess. His approval ratings are absolutely in the basement, which we've been saying for forever. But they just seem to keep falling.

LIASSON: Well, you know, that's important. I'm doing a piece this week on Trump and his base. And look, every president's support among his base stays strong. I mean, it's his base. That's what they are, his core supporters. And one of the phenomenons that we saw early on is even though his approval ratings were historically low, his base seemed to be rock solid. Now we're seeing some signs that maybe it's slipping.

But one thing that Donald Trump has done - every single trip he has taken out of Washington, D.C., has either been to a state he won or to a sympathetic group, like the National Rifle Association, the NRA, or Liberty University. He has paid meticulous attention to this base and, for a president who won with 46 percent, doesn't seem very interested in enlarging it.

DETROW: He literally has not gone to a state that Hillary Clinton won. Right?

LIASSON: That's true, yes. I can't think of one.

KURTZLEBEN: I don't believe so.

DETROW: I mean, I guess, he's gone to Maryland for CPAC, but yeah.

LIASSON: Yes, yes.

DETROW: All right. And speaking of big things that have affected the Trump presidency, Sue, as we were here in the studio, we just got another court ruling on the travel ban. Can you bring us up to speed?

DAVIS: Sure. The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., ruled - or refused to reinstate President Trump's revised travel ban. If you remember when he first took office, he issued a travel ban affecting people's ability to travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority nations. The administration revised that travel ban to make it more consistent with the law. This court ruling says, still not good enough. What this means, bottom line, is that this is likely headed to the Supreme Court, and it's going to be - have to be decided there.

DETROW: From that to Russia - one of the big questions this week was whether this trip would give the White House a break from Russia. Remember all of a week ago, how the week was just dominated by development after development after development, right up until Air Force One took off for Saudi Arabia. It wasn't last week, but we still have a lot of developments on the Russia thing, as the president has called it. So let's walk through some of those.

The big moment of testimony this week came from former CIA Director John Brennan. The question everyone wanted to know from Brennan was did you see any proof of the C-words. A lot of C-words came up - collusion, collaboration, conspiracy. So at first, Brennan was a little vague.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BRENNAN: I never was an FBI agent. I never was a prosecutor, so I really don't do evidence. I do intelligence throughout the course of my career. As an intelligence professionals, what we try to do is to make sure that we provide all relevant information to the bureau, if there is an investigation underway that they are looking into criminal activity.

DETROW: Republican Tom Rooney pushed him a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM ROONEY: But was there intelligence that said that the Trump campaign was colluding with Moscow during their campaign?

BRENNAN: There was intelligence that the Russian intelligence services were actively involved in this effort and...

DETROW: So actively involved in this effort - that's a little vague. And Republican Trey Gowdy really challenged him, basically saying prove what you're saying. And that led to a much more interesting quote from Brennan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRENNAN: I encountered and I'm aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn the - such individuals. And it raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.

DETROW: So Brennan wouldn't say who those U.S. persons were. But Mara, that struck me as a pretty newsy quote admission from John Brennan.

LIASSON: Pretty newsy quote - we're finding out raw intelligence was picked up of contacts and interactions between Russian officials and people involved in the Trump campaign. And John Brennan was sufficiently concerned about this that he went to the FBI and shared it with them. And whether or not this rises to the level of a crime, that's up to - now - special counsel Mueller to figure out.

DETROW: And this wasn't just Russians in general or Russian companies, these were Russian intelligence...

LIASSON: No, these were Russian intelligence operatives.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: Yes.

DETROW: I mean, that's really interesting. And at other points in the testimony, Brennan said that, you know, he knows what the Russian M.O. is and how they try to recruit people, and they do so either wittingly or unwittingly.

LIASSON: Sometimes you don't even know you're being recruited.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: Was Brennan the one who had the line that sometimes you're headed down a treasonous path and you - and before you know it, you're headed down a treasonous path.

DETROW: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRENNAN: I have studied Russian intelligence activities over the years. And I have seen it, again, manifest in many different of our counterintelligence cases and how they have been able to get people, including inside of CIA, to become treasonous. And frequently, individuals who go along the treasonous path do not even realize they're along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.

DETROW: And I thought, like, I don't know...

LIASSON: But this is what it's...

DETROW: Committing treason - I feel like I'd be aware of, like, hey (unintelligible)...

LIASSON: No, no, no, because that's how you get ensnared. You...

DETROW: But, like, what?

LIASSON: People who are involved in intelligence are very sophisticated and they understand the psychology of people.

DETROW: I know. But I'm just saying, like, hey, put this thumb drive in your computer and drag this over...

LIASSON: I don't think it's that crass.

DETROW: Yeah, no big deal...

LIASSON: I don't think it's that crass - or simple.

DETROW: So what happens next on all of this? We have the testimony playing out. And Sue, I guess, I'll ask you because Bob Mueller's investigation is picking up steam.

DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: And there was a lot of talk at the end of last week on The Hill from Lindsey Graham and other Republicans saying, well, now that a special prosecutor is involved, these congressional investigations are really going to slow down.

DAVIS: You know, this is messy, and this is complicated. I would also note, I was just seeing something come across the wire that House oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz is saying that the FBI has decided that they're not going to send them documents that they've requested - that the committee's requested.

This is complicated because Congress tends to defer to the FBI on matters of criminal investigation. One, for a very good reason, Congress doesn't investigate crimes. They have no role there. They don't prosecute. And also, when it comes to the questions of collusion and the potential criminality of this, the FBI just has the resources to conduct that investigation. And I would say the law enforcement community sometimes will look at congressional investigations as getting in their way. So I think it's fair to say that the FBI special counsel led by Robert Mueller is the tip of the spear here.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: That doesn't stop Congress from moving forward on the counterintelligence investigation. I mean, Congress still has a role here to figure out how - what, how and exactly Russia did what they did, what the effects were. But there is going to be some of this turf war as this goes forward. And I don't know if we actually know the answer to this because we're in such unchartered territory.

DETROW: Yeah. And these public hearings - I guess they're probably not of too much value to the committees doing the investigating...

DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: ...Because they have staffers going over, reading the raw files at the CIA, at the FBI, at places like that. But they're really important because, aside from blind sourcing in news outlets giving us information, these are the only chance that we get to hear officials say these things in public. And the public has learned key things at these hearings, like Jim Comey saying there is an active FBI investigation underway; like Brennan saying just there, we saw intelligence of contact between Russian intelligence and people in Trump's orbit. So I think there's value for us, the news consumers, in these hearings for sure, even if congressional hearings are not often a thing that are, like, super valuable (laughter).

DAVIS: And you make a really good point that's worth reminding people, that these congressional committees have their own investigators. They have staff investigators on these committees, particularly on the oversight committee, that are, generally speaking, lawyers with a lot of investigative experience and are doing a lot of that work behind the scenes, are doing a lot of those investigations behind the scenes and are talking to the FBI and the CIA and the NSA in classified conversations. And that's just the part that we don't get to see. And I think part of the frustration or the questions we have is we just don't know how long this is going to take. We don't know if this is something that wraps up quickly. We don't know if this is something that dogs President Trump for the rest of his term.

LIASSON: The White House is certainly getting ready for it to be long. They're trying to set up a kind of war rooms and something similar to what Clinton did when he was under investigation, where you designate people in the White House who are the only people who will deal with this so everyone else can go about their business and not get distracted. The big question is, does Donald Trump want to compartmentalize it?

DETROW: And the thing that I think about - and I think we've mentioned here and there, but it's always worth underscoring - is that when you look back at some of the previous special counsels out there, the things that, in the end, really got White Houses in trouble were actions that people in the White House took after the investigation began.

KURTZLEBEN: It's not the crime. It's the cover-up. Is that...

DETROW: I think so.

KURTZLEBEN: ...What you're saying? Yeah.

LIASSON: Well, that's what's been...

DETROW: Which is not really...

LIASSON: That's...

DETROW: ...An original take...

KURTZLEBEN: No, no, no...

DETROW: ...But I mean...

KURTZLEBEN: ...That's not what I'm...

DETROW: ...I think it's worth pointing out.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm not being snarky at all.

LIASSON: But that's what's been...

KURTZLEBEN: But that's how sounds.

LIASSON: ...The problem for Donald Trump...

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...All along...

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...That he seems to have - there are allegations that he interfered improperly, He asked Comey to drop the investigation of Mike Flynn, then he asked intelligence chiefs to push back against the notion that there was collusion. I mean, that's what's caused, I think, a lot of angst among Trump supporters on Capitol Hill.

DETROW: All right. A couple more things to update you on - I wonder if we should have, like, theme music for the, like, here's all the things that happened, kind of like a stock ticker report. Eh...

DAVIS: (Imitating Morse code taps).

DETROW: ...Probably not.

DAVIS: (Imitating Morse code taps).

DETROW: All right, we - so here's a couple other things that happened this week. We learned that Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, who's increasingly at the center of all this, pleaded the Fifth when it came to giving documents or testimony to the Senate intelligence committee. He also denied a request for documents the House intelligence committee asked for.

They now may join the Senate in issuing subpoenas, though it seems like we know that Flynn would say - yeah, no thanks - Fifth Amendment for that as well. The Senate this week targeted Flynn's consulting firm with subpoenas because they don't believe a business can plead the Fifth.

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, the irony here that many people pointed out is that on the campaign trail, pointing to the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, Donald Trump said, "you see the mob takes the Fifth" - I'm quoting here. "If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?"

A lot of people - it sort - Twitter sort of exploded when it was found that Michael Flynn was going to plead the Fifth because everybody dug up this old quote of Donald Trump's, which seems to happen a lot with digging up old Donald Trump quotes these days.

LIASSON: But on that one, Donald Trump was channeling the widespread belief of the American people who have told pollsters over and over again for decades that they believe people who take the Fifth have something to hide.

DAVIS: Although Flynn is certainly not the only person who has ever taken the Fifth before Congress when they're also subject to a criminal investigation. I mean...

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, sure.

DETROW: It seems like a smart move, right?

DAVIS: Any lawyer is going...

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...To tell you not to testify in a noncriminal setting if you're under criminal investigation.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

DAVIS: But yes, it certainly has the negative perception behind it.

DETROW: Any lawyer is also probably going to tell you not to tweet about that investigation

DAVIS: Perhaps.

DETROW: Yes. All right, that is all of the Russia news for this week, up until this point at least. Who knows what will have happened by the time we record this and the time you listen to it? We're going to take a quick break here. When we come back, it is the Danielle Kurtzleben Show. We are talking about the CBO score of the House Republican health care bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODINGTON BEAR'S "LIME BEAT")

DETROW: We are back. It is time to get your CBO faces on. You may recall - what felt like 19 years ago, the House passed the American Health Care Act.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: They did this by just a couple of votes, and they did it before the Congressional Budget Office could weigh in on what exactly this bill would do, how much it would cost, how many people it would cover, how it could affect the market. Now, the CBO had weighed in on an earlier version of that bill, saying 24 million fewer Americans would be insured in 10 years if that became law. And that was a big reason why the bill was so unpopular with voters. We got a new CBO score for the new bill yesterday. And Danielle, you know everything about it.

KURTZLEBEN: More or less. All right, I'm going to give you the bullet points. Feel free to interrupt me with questions you got, OK?

DETROW: OK, let's...

KURTZLEBEN: All right.

DETROW: ...Do this.

KURTZLEBEN: Headline numbers are this - under the American Health Care Act, the CBO said 23 million fewer people would have insurance in 2026 than they would were current law, The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, to stay in place.

DETROW: Which is, ballpark, about-ish (ph) the same number as before.

KURTZLEBEN: Correct. It was 24 million in the last report, 23 million now, give or take. The other big number - it would cut the deficit by $119 billion over 10 years. That is a fair bit smaller than the $330 billion deficit cut that previously had been measured for this bill. Those are the two big numbers.

All right, a couple more big points - that big deficit cut is largely because of Medicaid. There are really big cuts to Medicaid in this bill - 834 billion over 10 years. However, a lot of that is balanced out by big tax cuts, which largely go to the rich. So you're cutting a program that largely serves lower-income Americans - that does serve lower-income Americans by cutting taxes that will, according to the Tax Policy Center, overwhelmingly benefit the top 1 percent.

DETROW: So those are all the top-line numbers here.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DETROW: Now, there had been a big debate about what this would do for people with pre-existing conditions. Republicans said, no, no, they'll be fine. They'll still be covered. Democrats and many outside experts said that is not the case at all. What did the CBO say?

KURTZLEBEN: Correct. So the CBO really had a tough job to do here because what this bill allows states to do is get various types of waivers for how they, in particular, would handle insurance. For example, they could waive what are called essential health benefits. Essentially, states could say Obamacare mandated that you have to cover X, Y, Z conditions. States could say, I want a waiver for that, and the government could say, OK. Likewise, there is what is called community rating. States could waive that to say insurers could change rates based on pre-existing conditions based on your current health status. So....

DETROW: And community rating was - oversimplifying grossly - but just the general idea...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

DETROW: ...Was that...

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

DETROW: ...If we live in the same part of the world, if we're generally the same demographic, you can't charge one of us drastically different rates than another.

KURTZLEBEN: More or less, right, yeah. So what it did was in states that took both of those waivers - this covers about one sixth of the U.S. population - what they said is one sixth of the U.S. population would live in places with unstable individual insurance markets. In those places - and here is a quote - "over time, it would become more difficult for less healthy people, including people with pre-existing conditions, in those states to purchase insurance because their premiums would continue to increase rapidly."

Not only that, but it's not just about being sick. In particular - this is another quote - "out-of-pocket spending on maternity care and mental health and substance abuse services could increase by thousands of dollars in a given year for the nongroup enrollees who would use those services." That is one of the bigger money quotes from this report.

DETROW: And you were saying CBO reports are not normally the type of thing...

KURTZLEBEN: It's...

DETROW: ...That have money quotes.

KURTZLEBEN: ...It's not - I don't know. It's not usual that I read a CBO report at my desk and I, you know, like, wave you over or someone else and be like, you got to read this. Like, look at this. You know - like, the - I was really sitting at my desk going, man, a lot of this does not look good - to put it lightly.

DETROW: Yeah. Sue, there's a lot of numbers and quotes and conclusions that Danielle just said that sound very easily translatable to a television ad or a mailer for people running for House or Senate.

DAVIS: What's funny, too, is that, in some ways, this whole thing is moot, right? That - this bill's not going to become law. So - we know that. The Senate has already taken this health care bill and said OK, we're going to move this over here and work on our new bill. This - the bill...

DETROW: So they're kind of creating their own bill. So...

DAVIS: Right. But...

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...The American Health Care Act, as written and passed by the House, is not going to become law, period.

DETROW: OK.

DAVIS: But Republicans own what they did in it. And this is - certainly in the CBO report - is politically not great for Republicans, partly because the rally that they made to actually pass the bill and that affected these pre-existing conditions - they got the votes by saying, we're not going to hurt people with pre-existing conditions. We're just going to cover them differently. And the CBO very much undercuts that promise. And if you think about how easy it is to sloganize those promises - if you like your doctor, you can keep him.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

DETROW: I heard that one.

DAVIS: Exactly.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DAVIS: And Republicans - yes, through the course of the past six, seven years, they have campaigned on repealing and replacing Obamacare. But the thing they have also campaigned on is keeping in place the popular parts of the law, namely protecting people with pre-existing conditions. This seems to very explicitly walk back that promise, and people feel very strongly. I could argue that the pre-existing condition protections are the most universally popular parts of the law. So just tinkering with that alone seems like a politically not very smart thing to do. What I would note - it was really striking to me - House Speaker Paul Ryan, in his statement in response to the CBO report, focused on the positive, in his view, which is, he said, this bill accomplishes our mission - his word - the mission to lower the deficit and lower premiums.

So if that is the Republican goal with this health care bill, it does do that. And Republicans - and this argument about fewer people would be insured because it repeals the individual mandate - and their argument is it just makes people not have to buy something they don't want in the first place. And almost universally in Congress, the Republican Party's viewpoint is it is not the government's job to force you to buy health insurance coverage. So they take issue with that 23 million point because they're saying, that's the whole point.

KURTZLEBEN: To tack on to two things that Sue said there - one, the thing about saying that this bill will lower premiums is technically, yes. But, I mean, it's really hard to make that as a blanket assessment because for particular people, for example, older, low-income Americans in particular - your premiums, if you're in an individual market, could absolutely skyrocket compared to what you would pay given the Obamacare subsidies right now.

The other thing is this - is if you're going to say, you know, we don't want to force people to buy something they don't want on insurance, this is a tricky thing about making this kind of policy, right? - is because you don't want insurance until you want insurance, right?

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Like, if I know I'm going to be perfectly healthy for the rest of my life, like, what do I care, you know? But you don't know. That's kind of the nature of the beast here. So it's really hard to make that argument.

DETROW: So every time the CBO has weighed in on a version of this bill, the White House and many Republican leaders in Congress have criticized the CBO, saying they're often wildly off. These are just estimates. The CBO isn't always on point. How does that square with reality?

KURTZLEBEN: So when it came to the Affordable Care Act, CBO really did overshoot the number of people that would take part in the exchanges. However, they also substantially undershot the number of people who would newly be on Medicaid. So actually altogether, they really did get the uninsured rate relatively close, but they did get those numbers wrong. And - I mean, and, listen, the C...

DAVIS: Can we caveat that, though? I think...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...This is an important caveat because they - Republicans have a point. CBO numbers on Obamacare...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Were wrong. But CBO is limited. They can only make forecasts based on current law.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

DAVIS: And after the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, laws changed. Namely, the Supreme Court ruled that states were allowed to not accept the Medicaid expansion.

DETROW: Which drastically...

KURTZLEBEN: That's very true.

DETROW: ...Changed the picture.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

DAVIS: And that dramatically changed the baseline forecast. So...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

DAVIS: ...Yes, they were wrong, but the law changed after implementation.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: That's a great point. And the other thing is the CBO does say in this report - I mean, of course, there's always uncertainty surrounding estimates. But, like I was saying earlier, what these numbers hinge upon is what states do take or don't take various waivers, you know. And so, really, these numbers could end up being relatively far off if lots of states decide to take part in waivers or if no states decide to take part in them.

DETROW: Now, Mara, with all the other stuff we've been talking about and all the other stuff going on, you think health care could be a bigger issue than Russia at this point for voters?

DAVIS: A hundred percent.

LIASSON: Absolutely. Oh, like, beyond - let's just pause to say, inside the Beltway, we think Russia is really important. Outside the Beltway, people think health care's really important.

DAVIS: I agree. I think that that is one thing, too - that there's so much focus on Russia - and it matters, and it's important. But in terms of, like, individual voter motivation, health care, I think, trumps Russia...

LIASSON: And...

DAVIS: ...Pun intended.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: But health care is a much bigger issue politically for Republicans than Russia at this point.

LIASSON: And what's so interesting is that Democrats who have been completely re-energized by anti-Trump sentiment are not running on Russia in these special elections.

DAVIS: Yeah.

LIASSON: They're running on health care.

DAVIS: I have not talked to a single Republican or Democrat who thinks congressional elections, as of right now, are going to turn on Russia, but health care, absolutely.

LIASSON: Absolutely.

DETROW: All right. So one other thing that happened this week - the Trump administration introduced its budget for next year. Danielle, the same question as I had before - what are the big-picture highlights for you from this budget, which you also spent time reading this week?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Let's start with this. So Donald Trump says that this budget, by the year 2026, will balance the budget - that the U.S. will actually be running a small surplus as of 2026. Now, how they get there, we'll get to that. It involves some funny math.

All right - aside from that - so this budget, you know, ups spending on defense. It ups spending on homeland security and so on. It makes big cuts to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which many people know as food stamps. It also would end up reducing Medicaid spending by even more than the American Health Care Act would. And this budget does incorporate the American Health Care Act.

Aside from that, you know, there's a lot of, you know, cutting waste, fraud and abuse, which is, you know, a common line in these sorts of things, you know - that we're going to make sure that there is, you know, less waste in terms of tax credits, making sure that people who are in the country illegally are not getting benefits that they should not be getting. They're going to introduce work requirements for food stamps.

Aside from that, a few more things - you know, they're going to do some changes to the student loan program. They're going to stop subsidizing interest on student loans, which would probably hurt lower-income students more than high-income students, as you might guess. And one more thing - it also adds a paid leave plan, which we're also going to get to in a couple minutes.

DETROW: So Sue, it was not a surprise that Democrats came out of the gates just complaining and blasting this budget. But it was surprising that a lot of Republicans did too.

DAVIS: Yeah, for sure. I mean, the thing that's curious to me about this budget - because increasingly, the whole budget process is kind of farcical at this point - but that they're political documents, right? This is not a serious policy statement. This is sort of a political wish list. They're trying to make a political statement with it. And a lot of it is slashing and burning the federal government and dramatically reducing the size and scope of the government and a lot of programs that are pretty popular in both parties.

One good example, which is small, but not small for him - Pat Roberts, who's a Republican senator from Kansas, held court in the Senate this week - very critical of this budget because it slashes farm programs. And if they think that Pat Roberts is going to vote for anything that slashes farm programs - so what was curious to me about this is these documents tend to be pretty political, but they're all supposed to be political towards the other party. It's...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...Supposed to be something that you give Democrats reason to criticize but...

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Republicans something to rally behind. And Trump's budget really fell flat, not just among Democrats but notably among Republicans. John Cornyn, who's the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, called it, as many Republicans did, dead on arrival.

LIASSON: You know, what's so interesting also is that budgets are an expression of the president's priorities. And they're supposed to be, really, like a culmination of what he ran on.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: And this doesn't strike me as a very Trumpist (ph) budget. It looks like a Freedom Caucus budget, really austere with two...

DETROW: Is it Trumpist...

LIASSON: ...Exceptions.

DETROW: ...Or Trumpian (ph)?

LIASSON: Trumpian...

DETROW: Either one.

LIASSON: ...Trumpist. But there are two exceptions. He does have $200 billion for infrastructure that's supposed to leverage a trillion. And he has the Ivanka Trump paid family leave plan in there, which is also not really popular with Republicans on Capitol Hill. What's so interesting is that Trump hasn't built a kind of Trumpist movement on Capitol Hill. He hasn't really expressed Trumpian values through his policies. And it's kind of - we're losing the definition of what Donald Trump is supposed to be.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. I was trying to explain the paid leave thing to a couple of friends this week. And I - it's hard to come up with a good analogy of these things. But I was like, you know, it's like putting a shark fin on a cat. It just doesn't fit. Like, if you look at the rest of this budget - like, when he first unveiled it, it was the hard-power budget, you know, which is the phrase that they used and, you know, like, with all these increases in defense spending and so on. And really to have that hard-power budget, plus cutting all of these social programs and then tack on a new paid leave program - it doesn't...

LIASSON: A new entitlement.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. It's really very odd, and it doesn't create a coherent statement, like you're saying, of - OK, here's what my administration really wants to do. It's just like here's - it makes it look more like a mishmash.

DETROW: Danielle, I want to say thank you because while you said that, I doodled a shark fin on a cat...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

DETROW: ...On my script here. But you were talking about fuzzy math before.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

DETROW: Is that the term you used? Explain what is going on there and where the numbers that they're using fall short.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So the phrase you may have heard kicked around a lot this week is double counting. Here are the basics on this. The Trump budget says that over those 10 years, part of the way that it will balance the budget and reduce the deficit is via economic growth - that there will be so much economic growth, 3 percent per year on average - by the way, which we'll get to - is very - it would be almost out of the question that that would create $2 trillion extra in revenue over those 10 years.

OK, but aside from that, here's the thing. The budget does not include Trump's tax reform proposal, which if you've listened to Steve Mnuchin over the last couple of months, he has also said would pay for itself by 3 percent economic growth. That is where that double counting comes in. So like here's an analogy.

DETROW: All right.

KURTZLEBEN: All right.

DETROW: Is it better or worse than shark fin on a cat?

KURTZLEBEN: It is better because I thought about it harder. OK - and did not come up with that on the spot. I was trying to think of one today because this is really a very odd situation. So, OK, let's say I set up a lemonade stand in front of NPR. And I'm selling lemonade, but I'd like to sell more. So I say to you, hey, Scott, you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to go buy a super expensive juicer - a $1,500 juicer, which is what I found on the Williams Sonoma website this morning. But don't...

DETROW: What's the model of this juicer you found?

KURTZLEBEN: It is the Kuvings Whole Slow Juicer Chef CS600.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: I thought you made that up.

KURTZLEBEN: Don't worry. I'm going to buy this $1,500 juicer, but I'm going to make so much more lemonade that I'm going to take in $1,500. It's just going to pay for itself. Don't worry about it. It's all going to be fine. And let's say, you say, OK, Danielle, sure, whatever. Then I come in tomorrow and say, hey, Scott, guess what I'm going to do. I have $1,500 in credit card debt. Guess what - I'm going to make $1,500 off my lemonade stand. You might rightly go, but you said you were going to spend that on the other thing. And that's kind of what's going on here.

DETROW: So they're using it to justify spending, and then they're allocating that money to multiple places at the same time?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. That's where the weirdness comes in. And it rightly made people go, wait, so which is it? What is it going to pay for? Also, just as I'm not likely to bring in $1,500 in the next week in lemonade profits...

DETROW: Don't sell yourself short.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, likewise - I'll try not to, but likewise the United States is unlikely to grow at 3 percent over the next decade. It just - perhaps, it can hit 3 percent at some point, but it is certainly unlikely to sustain that. And most mainstream economists agree on that.

DETROW: I believe in your lemonade stand.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.

DAVIS: There's a bigger point, I think, to all of this budget talk, too, this week and going forward is that the federal budget process from top to bottom is broken. The system does not work the way it was designed. The system was last reformed before I was born. And it is universally panned as being insufficient and not working. The budget process, which the budget - which is supposed to outline how we spend our money - congress rarely passes budgets anymore. The 12 spending bills that determine how that money should be spent - they haven't passed all 12 of the spending bills on time since 1996. There is endless gimmicks and work arounds on how to work with that money. I mean, there is universal frustration at the process. And it really matters. It really does.

LIASSON: I have a question about that. Is the process broken, or is it just that members on Capitol Hill aren't willing to make the tough choices that they have to make to pass 12 appropriations bills?

DAVIS: That's certainly - that is absolutely part of it. Is there - the whole line is, like, is the problem the rules or is the problem the lawmakers? But I do think that the last time the budget process was redefined was in 1974. And there's just been a lot of chippings away at that process. And I think there is an argument that you could just revive the way you do the process. And the institution has done that over the years. But the way they function now, Scott - and I think people are pretty aware of this - is it's in fits and starts and when crisis comes about. It's all fiscal showdowns, government shutdowns at the end of the fiscal year. It's always done under pressure. The system doesn't work the way it was designed.

DETROW: All right, we are going to take one more quick break. I really hope support does not come from Kuvings juicer company.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: When we come back, that Montana special election, which may be over by the time you hear this, and also can't let it go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: OK, we're back. So today, in Montana, there is an election - one that may very well be decided by the time you hear this. Now, this election took a turn at the very last moment. But before we get into that, some backstory. This is a special election to fill the House seat left vacant by Republican Ryan Zinke who became President Trump's interior secretary. We have spoken before about how great his Twitter feed is. But this special election is like those we've seen in Georgia and elsewhere, where a single seat can't really tip the balance of power in the House at all. But Democrats would love to win the seat and use it as an example of momentum for their party going into next year's elections, where every House seat is up. So, Mara, this race between Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte - it did get some national attention.

LIASSON: It certainly did. It's getting more now, but we'll get to that in a minute. Because these special elections - there are very few of them. They're the only game in town. So of course, they're very heavily watched for any kind of tea leaves or predictions that we might be able to extract from them. But Quist has never run for office before. He's gotten a lot of support, finally, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Bernie Sanders has come in to campaign for him.

DETROW: A lot. Bernie Sanders got really into this race.

LIASSON: Yes. And Donald Trump Jr. campaigned with Gianforte. Donald Trump, the president, recorded robocalls. Mike Pence has been there. So it's become the proxy for Democratic energy, health care. Quist has made health care the centerpiece of his campaign. And this is a race that - it's an at-large seat, which means there's only one Congress member for the entire state of Montana.

Of course, as you said, Donald Trump won the state of Montana very handily, but there are some pockets of Democratic support. And this race, at least in the polls, has been closer than is comfortable for Republicans.

DETROW: On that note, again, before we get into the last-minute surprise twist, Sue, how were Republicans feeling about this race?

DAVIS: Not great, which is surprising considering the strength of the president's victory there. Although - and this is worth noting - Montana elects Democrats. They have a Democratic governor. They have a Democratic senator. So it is not unusual for a Democrat to be able to win statewide. What I would say - before the special twist in this race - these are two pretty mediocre candidates. I don't think either party...

DETROW: You don't think folk singer is a good...

DAVIS: You know, I don't think either party committee was promoting these guys as Tier 1 candidates. Gianforte ran for governor. He lost in a year where Republicans won the state. Rob Quist is a folk-singing Democrat with no political experience. So it was already kind of a race between two B-Tier candidates, which makes races even harder to predict. Special elections are really tough to poll. It's really hard to know who's going to show up. And there was just so much uncertainty.

And Montana is really interesting because I think a lot of times Montana and the western states get blocked in as being seen as Republican states or red states, but there's a really big difference between a Montana Republican and an Alabama Republican. And there's a much more, I would say, maybe libertarian-minded bend to Republican politics in the mountain west. And it's just kind of hard to pin down specifically.

DETROW: And all of that made for an interesting story. It's why our colleague Don Gonyea has been on the ground there the last few days. And that's the backstory. So yesterday at a campaign event in Bozeman, a reporter from The Guardian named Ben Jacobs walks up to Gianforte with a tape recorder to ask him about the CBO score for the health care bill. And here's the audio of what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG GIANFORTE: We'll talk to you about that later.

BEN JACOBS: Yeah, but there's not going to be time. I'm just curious...

GIANFORTE: Yeah, speak with Shane (ph) please. I'm sick and tired of you guys.

JACOBS: Jesus Christ.

GIANFORTE: The last guy that came in here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here.

JACOBS: Jesus.

GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. Are you with The Guardian?

JACOBS: Yes. And you just broke my glasses.

GIANFORTE: You - the last guy did the same damn thing.

JACOBS: You just body slammed me and broke my glasses.

GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here.

JACOBS: You'd like me to get the hell out of here. I'd also like to call the police. Can I get you guys' names?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, you got to leave.

JACOBS: He just body slammed me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You got to leave.

DAVIS: If Gianforte does not like reporters putting microphones in his face and asking about CBO reports...

LIASSON: Why is he running for congress?

DAVIS: ...He is going to hate congress.

LIASSON: Why is he - and C - we know that the CBO scores are controversial, but I don't think they've ever sparked violence before.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: But that was - when he was saying, your guys' names, he was not talking to Gianforte's staffers. He was talking to a Fox News crew that was setting up for an interview with Gianforte.

DETROW: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: And they backed him up.

LIASSON: And they backed him up.

DETROW: Because Gianforte put out a statement saying that Jacobs provoked this. He waved the recorder in his face. And I forget the exact quote, but it basically said this all came down to a liberal reporter being aggressive. So then you have this audio from Jacobs that tells a different story.

And then Fox News posts a story basically confirming Jacobs and actually going further than the way Jacobs described it, saying that Gianforte grabbed him by the neck from behind and threw him to the ground.

LIASSON: Threw him down and then punched him at least once or twice. And they said that at no time was Jacob being in any way aggressive or physical. And what's really interesting about this, of course, is this happened one day before Election Day. And because there's early voting by mail in Montana, something like close - over a third of the voters in Montana have already mailed in their ballots. So how would this affect the race? Several newspapers withdrew their endorsements of Gianforte. He's been charged...

DETROW: Right. Yeah, that's the other...

LIASSON: ...Formally charged with misdemeanor assault.

DETROW: He's been charged with misdemeanor assault. And the front page, banner headlines, Gianforte charged. So that's - if you haven't voted yet, you wake up to look at that headline.

LIASSON: Although, in our tribal politics today, immediately there was speculation, wow, this could help him because he attacked a liberal reporter from a foreign newspaper - The Guardian. And as a matter of fact, Duncan Hunter, a Republican congressman, said, well, I don't condone this unless the reporter deserved it.

DAVIS: Well, it also does come on the heels of other very widely covered incidents of sort of aggression towards reporters. And there was an incident of a West Virginia reporter being arrested during an event with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. And a local D.C. reporter was backed up against the wall by staff at the FCC. So...

LIASSON: And not to mention all the things Donald Trump said during the campaign like, you know, to protesters, maybe he deserved to get roughed up, or, if you punch that protester, I'll pay your legal costs, or, I wish I could punch him in the face.

DAVIS: Or singling out reporters at his rallies.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: Yeah.

DAVIS: And Gianforte, if he is convicted of misdemeanor assault, faces fines of up to $500 and up to six months in jail. And he could be maybe the first, if he wins, congressman to be charged with assault and elected to Congress in the first - in a 24-hour period of time.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, speaking of that early voting thing that Mara was talking about, I mean, the Billings Gazette, in withdrawing its endorsement, also made the argument that, you know, for Montana to pass some sort of a law that would allow people who have already cast their vote early to withdraw it and change it if they would like...

LIASSON: By Election Day.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yes.

DETROW: I don't know. I don't know. I feel like - yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: It's just what they're arguing. But plenty of other states..

DETROW: We're about to get the take portion of this podcast.

KURTZLEBEN: Plenty of other states do do that...

DETROW: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...As part of their argument.

DETROW: I think if you cast a vote early, you do so knowing that things are going to happen between then and the election day. I feel like once you've made the active decision to cast your vote, you have cast your vote.

LIASSON: But wait. What states allow you to withdraw and change your mind?

KURTZLEBEN: Honestly, I don't know.

LIASSON: So there - in other words, there are states...

DETROW: A few do, though.

DAVIS: It's about half a dozen.

DETROW: It's kind of a complicated process, from what I recall, because logistically that's hard to do. But a few states do allow it. So, OK, it is Thursday afternoon. Most people are probably going to listen to this on Friday morning going forward when we have the results. So here's what we're going to do. Fire up your best D.C.-pundit selves. We're going to walk through three different scenarios and give us your take on what you think that could mean. First of all, the Democrat Quist wins.

LIASSON: Oh, Republicans freaked out, worried - DEFCON 5 (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Although, I - there will be the temptation in that event to see this, you know, in particular as a referendum on Donald Trump as, you know, many people are already kind of seeing these special elections. Now, what I would say to that is, you know, I heard Don Gonyea report something to this effect this last week. I was recently down in Georgia to report on their special election. I asked lots of people there, you know, in the Washington bubble, people see this as a referendum on Trump - what do you think? A lot of them kind of shrugged. They're like, it's about local issues. No.

DETROW: And I guess now you can have Republicans say, well, this isn't a big-picture-existential issue. It's the fact that this candidate was charged with possible assault on the eve of the election. All right...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

DETROW: ...Take scenario number two - Gianforte wins but with a five to 10-point margin. You know, he skates through without sweating it too much.

DAVIS: Man, I think if he wins by a 10 percent margin, Republicans will be thrilled. I mean, prior to this incident - and this is sort of like, beyond that, Mrs. Lincoln, would did you think of the play? I don't know how - this incident just so will change the way everybody decides what happened with this event. But I can tell you prior to this, the thinking was that anything under 10 percent was not great for Republicans, and anything under 5 percent was pretty scary.

DETROW: Which brings us to take scenario number three - Gianforte wins but by a really narrow margin.

DAVIS: If he wins in a razor thin margin, I think that is going to really scare Republicans back in Washington. And what Mara and I were saying earlier, where health care is a much bigger issue of concern than Russia, I can tell you that people that care about political campaigns will be much more freaked out about what happens in Montana than anything that's happening in these investigations on Capitol Hill right now.

KURTZLEBEN: No doubt.

DETROW: OK, so we have...

LIASSON: Just to remind everyone over and over again, this is a red state. This should not be close at all.

DETROW: OK, so I think we have covered all the hypothetical scenarios. I will stop doing a McLaughlin Group sketch and yelling hypothetical things at everyone now. We will see what happens. And tomorrow night, if you're listening to this on Friday or later, congratulations, you know more than us.

Now it is time for Can't Let It Go. This is how we end the show each week, when we all share one thing we cannot stop thinking about politics or otherwise. Mara, you are up first.

LIASSON: My Can't Let It Go this week is about the president meeting the pope. And what we've been watching for very carefully this week is the way he's received in Europe, whether it's frosty, bemused, alarmed. And everybody was watching the pope because, of course, Trump and the pope have clashed during the campaign. So when the first lady met the pope, the pope said to her, what have you been feeding him, potica, which all the pool heard as him saying pizza. But it turns out that potica - and my apologies to anyone Slovenian - is a Slovenian dessert, very fattening apparently. So that raised a lot of questions. Was the pope just trying to make a connection by mentioning the only Slovenian food that he could think of? Or was he really calling the president of the United States fat?

DETROW: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

DAVIS: Well, considering their past confrontation, sounds like more of a fat joke to me.

LIASSON: That's what I think.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: I don't know. It could easily be seen as like me happening to be in Chicago visiting a friend of mine and being like, so how about those Cubs, like local sports reference.

LIASSON: Yeah. But he said, what are you feeding him?

DAVIS: Yeah. That would be like, how many hot dogs have you been eating at those Cub's games?

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: All right, fair enough.

DETROW: I think the biggest actual slight was among the things the pope gave President Trump was his big encyclical on the importance to act on climate change at a point when Trump is deciding whether or not to stay in the Paris Accords.

LIASSON: That shows you the pope is a good politician.

DETROW: He's a very good politician...

LIASSON: ...He's was lobbying.

DETROW: Yeah. Danielle how about you?

KURTZLEBEN: OK, I'm going to get away from politics, as I do occasionally, because, you know, we wade around in this, you know, neck deep all week. So as you all may know, I often stand there or sit there at my desk with relatively soundproof headphones in, so I don't have to be bothered by anybody.

DETROW: And they're headphones that are subtle. So often, I will start talking to you. And then 30 seconds later, I'll realize you have headphones in.

KURTZLEBEN: Correct. And I, often, can barely hear you. And I think, if he really needs me, he'll talk louder. So anyway, what I'm often listening to is classical music, which has gotten me into this podcast - no one is paying me for this - from Houston Public Media. Its shtick is that the music library in there, apparently, does not know a thing about classical music. So she goes to her various co-workers each week and says, OK, tell me about this composer. Tell me X, Y, Z. It's fantastic.

Even as a relative aficionado, I'm impressed by like how deep into the weeds they get. This is not Beethoven's Fifth, "The Rite of Spring." This is like stuff that is lesser known. They have a whole episode on "Star Wars" comparing it to opera - you know, the motifs that they play. (Imitating "Star Wars" theme). And so it's great. I totally recommend it if you get sick of talking about politics.

LIASSON: And what's the name of the podcast?

DETROW: A podcast like this one (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, God. If you get sick - when you're done listening to this podcast, go download it - Classical Classroom.

DETROW: OK. All right, I'm going to take us down several levels from classical music. So my Can't Let It Go...

DAVIS: To buttholes.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Yes, yes (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Hooray.

DAVIS: And in other news this week...

DETROW: Thanks, Sue. Perfect cue. Al Franken, senator from Minnesota, Democrat, has a new book out. It is called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate."

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: This book made some headlines this week because excerpts have started to pop up. It comes out next week. And I have had a chance to read the whole book because I'm doing a story on it. I interviewed Franken the other day. That will air Tuesday on All Things Considered. But the part of the book that got my attention the most - and it got everyone else's attention - is an entire chapter that Franken devotes to Ted Cruz. And in the lead up to the chapter on Ted Cruz, Franken writes a lot about how he's learned the rules of the Senate over his time there and how respect is so important. And he talks about how he surprised himself by making friends with so many Republicans like Jeff Sessions.

And then he gets to Ted Cruz, and Ted Cruz does not fit into that boat. I will read some quotes that Franken writes about Ted Cruz. Quote, "he is an absolutely toxic coworker. Quote, "he is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate." Quote, "Ted's condescension hung in the air like the stench from a cat box in an apartment with 40 cats belonging to an elderly woman who had just been found dead."

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, that is evocative.

DETROW: Yeah. And the final quote, which created a moment where I had to quote it and ask him about it, was "Ted Cruz," quote, "a world class butthole."

DAVIS: Can we say butthole on NPR?

DETROW: We'll find out if it sticks in the podcast or not.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: You know, the thing that's amazing? Al Franken, you buried the lead. He's former SNL cast member. Comedian - the only comedian - professional comedian, I think, to ever be in the Senate.

DETROW: And he had tried really hard, basically, his entire first six-year term to not show that side of himself publicly.

LIASSON: To not be funny.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: Sounds like he's still not being funny.

DETROW: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: At least in some of those jokes.

DETROW: You didn't like the cat box one?

DAVIS: I liked the one...

LIASSON: Too labored, too labored.

DAVIS: ...Did he have a line, too, that was about Ted Cruz is the guy that microwaves fish for lunch at the office was another?

DETROW: Yeah, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter),

LIASSON: That's funny.

DAVIS: It's also funny, Scott, because, as you know, as you sit and listen to the Senate, there's so much about the Senate is, I say to my friend, and he is my friend, my friend from this state, and my friend from that. And so much of the dialogue of the Senate is about your friendships and your alliances in the institution. And Franken just sort of torches all that. It's really - it's, like, notable to me how personal and repeated he goes after Cruz.

DETROW: The interesting thing about the book is that there are several chapters on just how weird it is to run for statewide office. That is some of the more blunt stuff I've seen about just like how you spend hours and hours sitting there calling strangers asking for money and then driving around - in Minnesota, apparently, you eat a lot of beans at Democratic events. So he goes on and on about the beans. So, yeah, anyway, that was an interesting interview. Cruz, for his part, said that this book is, quote, "obnoxious and insulting."

LIASSON: That's a great blurb for Franken, though.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Too bad the book is already - maybe it'll be the paperback blurb.

DAVIS: Second edition.

DETROW: Yes.

DAVIS: Second edition blurb.

DETROW: Obnoxious and insulting, Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

KURTZLEBEN: It's going to go one those, like, starburst stickers that go on the front of it at the Barnes and Noble shelf.

DETROW: (Laughter) So that's mine. Who has not gone? Sue, you have not gone.

DAVIS: So my Can't Let It Go this week is what I am calling hand politics. And it's been really interesting this entire week that the president's been abroad - and even before that, but we'll focus on this week for now - is that there's a lot of obsession about how the president shakes hands. And the most recent one was today, Thursday, in which he was photographed shaking hands with the new French president Emmanuel Macron. Am I saying that, right? Macron, like that?

KURTZLEBEN: Nice.

DAVIS: I like that.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: And there has become an obsession about Trump's handshakes because he's had a lot of really awkward moments with world leaders.

DETROW: He like alpha males them, right?

KURTZLEBEN: He yanks on the hands.

DAVIS: And the one with Macron was weird. Although, I would say, I watched the full video, and it wasn't as odd as a couple of the photographs that moved on the wire suggested, where Macron appears to be shaking his hand in a normal sort of grip, and Trump's hand is just sort of rigid and straight. And it makes for a really weird photograph and that it has added to this conversation of sort of, why is Donald Trump such a weird hand shaker?

If you remember when Angela Merkel visited the U.S. earlier this year, and there was this awkward moment where she was heard on tape saying, do you want to have a handshake, and he didn't shake her hand. Although, the White House said he didn't hear the request. There was a weird handshake moment with the Japanese Prime Minister Abe, where he did shake his hand, but he had - there was also another weird moment that they were talking about and...

DETROW: And Gorsuch, right? He like...

DAVIS: And Gorsuch, it was very similar.

DETROW: It was like pull in, yank, yank, yank, yank. Like continuing...

DAVIS: And he pats on the top of the hand as he handshakes. So as - the politics of body language, the president has an incredibly weird handshake style. I also think if we're talking about handshakes...

DETROW: That's not all when it came to this trip.

LIASSON: Oh, are we going to go there?

DAVIS: I think we have to talk about it.

LIASSON: All right, the missed handshake.

DAVIS: I don't think - we know - so...

LIASSON: The whole hand-holding.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh.

DAVIS: I would call it the hand slap.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

LIASSON: The hand slap but then there was also the...

DETROW: For all six of our listeners who are not up to speed on this, can you fill us in?

DAVIS: Especially because this moment went particularly viral this week is that on the president's trip, he was walking on the tarmac in Israel next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And his wife Melania was sort of behind him. And he appeared to sort of reach behind him to grab her hand. And she, on camera, appears to sort of swat it away. Like, she doesn't want to hold his hand. And this image was tweeted out by the Israeli news organization...

KURTZLEBEN: Haaretz.

DAVIS: Hareetz. And it went super viral online. And it's been cited and widely covered. And there was another image where he was deplaning Air Force One in Rome, where, again, it kind of appeared like he tried to hold her hand, and she didn't - it didn't connect.

KURTZLEBEN: That one looked like more plausibly like just an accidental shot.

LIASSON: She was going to tuck her hair.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, she didn't even see it happening. She didn't know what was going on.

LIASSON: But the Israel one looked intentional.

DAVIS: But what was so interesting about it, too, is that if you follow - if you're on Instagram, if you follow Pete Souza, who was President Obama's official photographer, he's taken to sort of throwing shade towards Trump with Instagram pictures. And after that Melania Trump moment went kind of viral online, he posted a picture of Barack and Michelle Obama holding hands at an event, and the caption just said holding hands. And then that went sort of subviral. He was sort of - can you sub...

(CROSSTALK)

DETROW: It's hard to go viral on Instagram.

DAVIS: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, Pete Souza manages it, though, because he does a lot of photo trolling, like Sue was saying, of Trump.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: But, you know, it's interesting because the - presidential marriages are the subject of tremendous fascination and interest. And volumes have been written about the Clinton's marriage, especially marriages that are complicated.

DAVIS: And the Reagan marriage.

LIASSON: And the Reagan marriage. And the Trump marriage is unusual, for sure. They've lived apart while he's been in office more than any other first couple that I can think of and not much has been written about it.

DETROW: Well for more psychoanalysis of other people's marriages, check us out on NPR One.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: That's what we're here for.

DETROW: I think that is a wrap for today. Thanks to everyone who writes with questions, comments and your recordings of our time stands for the beginning of the show. We are not always able to respond or answer your questions, but we read and listen to every single one of them. And they're always great at helping us figure out what to talk about each week. Our email is nprpolitics@npr.org. We'll be back next week. Make sure you're catching us on Up First. That's every weekday morning. It's NPR's morning news podcast. I think one of us has been on every single Up First except for maybe one or two. So you can catch up with what's happening in the world of politics that way, as well.

And, of course, you can support the podcast. We'd really appreciate it. You can also support public radio in general by supporting your local public radio station. Go to npr.org/stations. You can also find that link in our episode information. And thanks so much for thinking about doing that. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress for NPR.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

LIASSON: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS Podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP))

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